This week on the Strivin & Thrivin podcast we chat to Andrea Kirby, Director of Talent Table, the professional development events agency based in Sydney, Australia. Talent Table focuses on the in-house talent, TA and HR community, helping individuals build their professional network and develop their careers.
Andrea has significant experience in the talent and HR sector working across multiple industries. She recalls how her eclectic career – or career journey, as she would prefer – started out at the local library, identifying and labelling the sex scenes in books, before moving into various other roles and industries including HR, before finally settling into events in recent years.
Andrea’s career path has been anything but dull, as she highlights the incredible people she has been able to work with and the ways she has learned to work with all types of people. The key learning from working as a librarian, in a blind institute and in HR and events has been the value in helping other people.
“I’ve always gone for roles where I am working with people in one form or another,” she says.
Andrea tells us about her “challenge mindset” and her open and honest style of management makes her sound like a warm and approachable person, like a manager who’s got your back.
“If the sh*t’s gonna hit the fan, come and tell me and let’s have a plan before anyone else finds out about it,” she tells us.
Being a woman in business, Andrea’s found herself naturally gravitating to helping women succeed in the workplace and she isn’t scared to call people out when they’re stepping out of line, no matter their seniority.
“As far as I was concerned, we all chewed and swallowed our food in the same way,” she says, something we all need to remind ourselves of every now and again.
During our chat with Andrea, we get some inspiring insight into making big career changes later in life and learning to adapt to something new, outside of your comfort zone.
One of our key takeaways from this podcast is Andrea’s commitment to people and understanding her intrinsic need to want to help others.
It’s a fun and insightful listen this week so be sure to tune in to the latest Strivin & Thrivin podcast to hear more of Andrea’s story!
Laura: I’m your host, Laura Johnson. And today I’m lucky enough to have Neil Gunning as my wonderful co-host. Today we’re thrilled to be joined by the amazing, Andrea Kirby.
Okay, so, Andrea, can you start by telling us a little bit about your career background?
Andrea: Do you know? I always laugh when people say, “Tell us about your career”, because I’m not completely convinced, I’ve had a career as such.
I actually left high school, didn’t go to university. If you read one of my blogs on our website, you’ll know I was an incredibly shy person. My mum got me a job in my first library, which was the Victorian railways Institute library, where I worked with train drivers and all of their staff. My major job, as I’ve said in the past, was to read Mills and Boon books every two weeks and put a red star on the ones that the sex scenes were starting to creep into and as an 18-year-old virgin reading about sex in a jacuzzi was just eye-opening for me and then I worked in libraries for about five years.
I worked with blind people. I worked at Elders Finance with an economist. Finishing in a law library where the law librarian said to me, you know, I’m now approaching my early twenties and he said to me, “This is not the career for you. If you want to sit on a front desk checking books in and out and chatting to everyone, may I suggest you go and find something else”. So, I’ve fallen into every job that I have. I then went and did training administration for the Australian Institute of Management that then moved into selling corporate memberships, which moved into someone approaching me to be the first sales rep to sell computer notebooks.
That’s back when four mega ram was really exciting and then they moved me into developing and selling training on how to use the internet. So, in case you haven’t worked it out folks, I am that old. I remember the internet starting and I didn’t even know what I was training on and from there, I actually then started in HR as an HR administrator moving up the ranks.
But by now I’m actually in my late twenties. I moved to an agency and trained all the recruitment consultants on how to get past the gatekeeper and then I moved into running assessment centers, came back to Melbourne and kind of started at BHP Billiton, probably my proper HR career and then moved to England at the age of 40, where I chose to specialise in Talent Acquisition.
Andrea: So no particular rhyme or reason, went back to school and studied, pretty much learned everything on the job and as you all know, now I’ve started an event business because that’s just what you do with everything you’ve got..
Neil: Andrea, I’m a firm believer of that learning opportunities and cross compatible learning opportunities in every single role and skills that we develop soft skills, hard skills, etc.
From those early days through into when we started in HR, you know, librarian, training, etc. Can I get you to give us a bit of a journey of the things that you feel that you learned that you took into your HR career?
Andrea: I think the biggest thing that I’ve learned through it all is the importance of people and working well with people. I worked with all sorts of interesting types of people, as I said, you know.
So, working with blind people and helping them to find audiobooks and then going to work with economists. Who literally thought that I was just nothing in their world, just this little girl, but you know, worked in their library.
But at the heart of everything that I’ve learned is the importance of people. Making people feel good, giving people the things that they need, the customer service and the listening aspect. You take that into sales. The other important part that I’ve learned through everything is the ownership of what you do.
When I ended up managing teams, I used to always say to them, “You’ve got full responsibility for your role. But if the shit’s gonna hit the fan, come and tell me and let’s have a plan before anyone else finds out about it”. So, that ability to own what it is that you do, and to constantly improve on it, every role I’ve gone into I’ve turned it into something else.
So, people are very big on job descriptions and what they are for me, that’s a starting point. Whether it was actually, again, going back to the Blind Institute, it was a couple of years of so much fun, but I was in charge of interlibrary loans, and we had a person transitioning to be a woman, left a family of four and transitioned to become a woman.
This was back in the nineties when it wasn’t a big thing, but to actually go out in the world, let’s find some books that are going to help this person transition. So just always just thinking about what else I can do to give to people has been, I guess, the biggest learning which is great.
Neil: Do you think the awareness of the, I mean, you’ve referenced so many different types of people there. You know, I mean, to the various different audiences in the library, do you think understanding those different audiences, understanding their priorities might all be different, then give you a broader understanding of people so that when you did enter into your HR career sort of gave you a bit more of a leg up and just generally broadly understanding people.
Andrea: I think it did, I remember that when I was at school, I wanted to be a Social Worker, you know, a private school girl who was a church leader who didn’t do much outside her family. Very sheltered thought she was going to go and work with people at the biggest crises of their life. My aunt was a Social Worker and she said, go out into the world and see what the world is like first. I chose not to be a Social Worker, but probably it’s always underpinned everything I’ve done.
I think the more experience you can get with different people outside your comfort zone, the more you understand the world, the more you understand what makes people tick, the more you can help them. The more you can call them out on their bad behaviour. I did HR in a law firm, it’s very comfortable, I didn’t care if the person was a partner.
As far as I was concerned, we all chewed and swallowed our food in the same way. If they were behaving badly, I was going to call them out on it. Someone needed my help. I was going to give it. So, I think if you put people at the heart of everything you do, and you set about learning about people and understanding where they’re coming from.
Neil: And so, having that as the driver in the beginning of your career, was that the emphasis to you then making that leap into the people function? Was that the emphasis or was there a broader process behind it? Was it an impact thing?
Andrea: Yeah, do you know what I would like to say that I have had very considered moves right throughout my whole entire career, but no, the agency got me a job in HR with my experience in training admin and setting up internet training, you know, Hey! HR admin it will be.
I’m not even sure I knew human resources existed. I left school in 1983 folks, in case you’re wondering, do the maths I’m 55. We didn’t have career coaching. I was not the most academic person. I was put into typing class and was told I’d probably be a secretary. So, young people today that are coming out with degrees, and this is what they’re going to be for their life. I was probably one of that last generation that could come out and do whatever they wanted.
So, yes being an ex-church youth group leader and I’m nowhere near the church at the moment. I probably sit on the better side of atheism, but I think that always having that social justice and that social impact of the world at the heart of everything has meant that I’ve always gone for roles where I am working with people in one form or another.
Neil: Andrea two common threads have come out already is one of them is an absolute people focus, which is, you know, just wonderful. Secondly, it was that you’ve, you know, the formative years of your career, you were working in a different time. You’re working, you’ve referenced that you were told that you’re going to be a secretary. You referenced that a your, someone, a leader of yours in a library, basically told you, “This isn’t for you”.
Then those experiences with those people then. I mean, tell me how did that impact the HR career that you’ve had?
You know, I’d love to understand how living through that. I mean, ‘cause you know, when we were speaking to people at the moment who, you know, they maybe haven’t had such breadth of experience dealing with so many different audiences with the core underlying imprints being, “How can I help the person”, but trying to do that within, to be quite frank, what sounds like a potentially oppressive time. How has that impacted your career in HR?
Andrea: It’s interesting you say that, again, you know, I recently wrote a blog of working in the 80’s where women were not terribly well looked after, and to a certain extent were the second-class citizens in the working force.
So for me, it has always then meant that women in particular have always been a huge interest to me and ensuring that women in the workplace are well looked after and I’m fairly vocal on LinkedIn about it, sharing things like gender pay gap and the inequity of that, it has meant that if we were looking at HR policies or changes or those sorts of things, then the question about, “How will this impact women?”, was always right at the front of it.
When I did graduate recruitment for law firms, challenging them around the private school. You know, they had to have gone to Scotch and Saviour, and The University of Melbourne, to be a good lawyer. That their father was a Barrister, therefore, they’re going to be a fantastic lawyer.
You know what? They can still fail in exactly the same way. So, I guess I always have that challenge mindset and never been a servant in the role. Happy to provide great customer service, but this servant master relationship that existed in HR and Talent Acquisition, I will fight that every step of the way.
I am not here to do your bidding. I am here to advise and challenge you when I think you are doing the wrong thing and I know better because that’s my expertise and that has come with maturity. It’s also come, I think, from living in the UK and getting away with being a terribly direct Australian, frightening the life out of those English partners. Partners in EY and consulting firms and it’s a learned thing and I guess looking at what I’m doing now, it’s very much about challenging TA and HR communities and say, you know what? We are a profession. We do know our stuff. We are more than CV reviewers. We actually know it and let’s set about challenging our businesses to do better.
Neil: So, you’ve challenged from a point in time when challenging was, where there was no virtuous signalling out there, there was no perception management of everyone saying they’re challenging things, but not actually doing it. You have been challenging since before social media and the ability to just blast out there.
What, therefore, would your advice be to people today? Whether it be for the purpose of inclusion or whether it be for, you know, when they want to challenge something that isn’t the norm. What would your advice be to them, to know the ways in which to tackle it the right way? That you’ve seen success and you’ve had to challenge things in your working career?
Andrea: Well, I think you always have to respect the person sitting opposite you. I don’t know what I’d do if I sat in front of Scott Morrison right now, apart from punch him, but I would like to think I’d approach it with a level of respect. To understand where that person might be coming from.
So, if you’re dealing with a partner in a law firm, or a consultancy in the time that I was working, they predominantly were school boys, private school boys who came up through the university culture and had a certain level of expectation that they weren’t going to be respected because of what they did and you have to understand that. So look, I have a really cheeky way of approaching the world at the best of times and humour has always been my biggest thing and always tell some great stories about this, but, you know, I remember one partner saying to me, you have to hire this young man, his fathers a Barrister, he’s got law in his blood and I said, “Well, I’m sorry, but he actually doesn’t have the intellect we need to do the job.
He is going to struggle dealing with your clients because he’s not assertive enough to sort of put his points across and I’m telling you now that you will come to me in six months and say he’s failed”. But if you want to go with him, let’s put these things in place and sure enough, six months later, he came back and this was in the days of a personnel file and you know, you open up the personal file and you go, “Oh, look here, look, here’s the little note I wrote about this man”, and that man never recruited again without me in the room.
So, I think you can certainly use humour, respectfully. You have to stand your ground. You have to say, I know this, or this is fundamentally wrong and trust me, I was shaking in my shoes every single time I did that. I second guessed myself every single time.
Neil: So, therein lies another question for you then. So, with something that’s you know, we’re all taught at a certain point in our career that objectivity has to play a huge part in our decision making. However, those key things, through our personal and our working life that is inherently emotive, there’s no getting away from that. With something that is rooted, when you’re challenging these things, it’s rooted, then you’re looking to achieve a higher, a bigger purpose.
Neil: How do you slice and dice between the emotive and the objective to know which is the hill you’re willing to die on, and which is the one that you have to let go?
Andrea: Oh, Neil, you have just chosen probably my development area. There is no doubt that I am probably one of the most emotional people that I know. Definitely everything I do comes from a place of emotion. I’m very lucky here. I work with two people who have a lot more of the- maybe it’s that’s it. Maybe I surround myself with the people that have the things that I’m lacking in. The ability to sort of call me out on the emotion that I’m feeling, but you do go back to evidence-based approaches.
You do sort of go here’s all the evidence laid out in front of me. I really want to approach this from an emotional place. If you see a woman being sexually harassed by someone you do want to go in and there have been times, I’ve walked into an office of someone and sort of yelled at them, could have done it a bit better and have, you know, not necessarily made things worse and maybe it has worked, but you lay evidence out. I see nothing wrong with bringing emotion into business as long as you’re being fair and, and I think sometimes that’s been lacking in a lot of places that I’ve worked when you work with highly intellectual people, who come from a place of fact and knowledge and you’re approaching it from emotion. There’s a huge conflict there. So, you have to start with some fact, but I do believe you throw emotion in. People have to know you’re passionate about things.
Laura: I think people have to know who you are as well.
Andrea: Exactly, yeah people have to know these things matter. There’s been too much sweeping it under the carpet and the, “She’ll be right, mate”, approach, women are hurting at the moment. They’re really hurting.
Neil: It’s incredibly damaging.
Andrea: Mmm (Affirmative).
Neil: Okay so if we fast forward then Andrea, you’ve gone through your HR career, both in the UK and here, agency and so on, but then you made the leap to events. I’d love to understand the emphasis and the driver there. What, what was the key thing that made the leap? And as a secondary question, what was the emphasis? Also, what have you learned when making that leap?
Andrea: Oh, God, I wish I sounded more clever than I am. I came back from England at the age of 50 and I struggled to find a role in TA and I was talking about stuff that we are now talking about at our events. So, in the UK we’re a little bit ahead of a lot of things. I was told I was too experienced that they didn’t want me to put all of these things in, they just wanted me to recruit people and I had no network, all of my network had moved on to other things. It was a predominantly HR network.
In the UK I had an amazing network of friends and people, and you know, you and I, Neil know very much the same lot of people. You could always go out for a drink and chew the fat on an issue. If you were looking for a job people would actively help you and for the first time I came back to Australia and I had to go and use agencies, which I hadn’t used in a very long time.
You know, that’s a problematic thing because you’re in the mix with a whole lot of other people and they’re going for the highest potential placement that they can get. Let’s face it, it’s a sales driven industry. So, a friend of mine in the UK had an event business and he said, why don’t you take a license with us and start running what we do. I flew over, I got four days worth of training and came back and started and I had to do sales, I had to approach vendors to say, “Hey, come and do our events and this is the process, and this is what I’m trying to achieve”.
Three businesses came to my first event that I managed to achieve and that was Weploy, so Tony Wu, still a great friend today, Justin from Talent Vine and James Jennings and Chris Almond from Sourcer. So, very pleased the three of them are all going today and very pleased that some of their first business came from us.
So how did I do it? I have no idea. I pulled up my big girl pants and went back to sales. Shaking in my shoes.
Neil: So, there’s a large part of this that was necessity, it was coming back to a market that inherently changed. The end roads to what would have been your normal career path seem to have changed, the world had changed around you, and there was an opportunity to just go in a different direction and you jumped on it.
Andrea: Yeah, and that was basically it and had I run an event before? No, never would run one before. So, I set about reading, you know, event blogs and phoned up the venues and went, I have no idea what I’m doing, but what do I need to put in place? Backed up beautifully by Michelle Edwards, who’s a trained nurse who also knew nothing about it.
So, you know, I recruit the experts in, the two of us had a great time working it all out and that first couple of events were fantastic and I’ll never forget that people were suddenly saying, “Oh my God”, we’ve met other people like us and that was, I think the growth came from the TA community being really excited to be in a room together at exactly the same time in Sydney, in the Melbourne recruitment meet-up groups were starting as well.
So, there was some kind of change that was going on, where we were all looking for a lot more connection and, you know, I support both of those groups just as much, and we each have our place and the same as ATC, Jo Voland and I are great friends. We have coffee downstairs right under where I’m sitting right now. So, it was just, I guess, the loveliest thing that in the last four or five years, is how great it has been to see this community connect and learn and it’s what keeps me going right now while we’re trying to get up and running again, post COVID. There are days at the moment I feel I can just give up, but we will be back there again, at peak.
Neil: I have zero doubt.
Laura: Yeah, you will.
Neil: Have absolutely zero doubt. You referenced there, you know, learning-
Neil: And you’ve had a wonderfully diverse learning journey and career journey. You, you didn’t want to call it a career so let’s call it a professional journey. You’ve had a wonderfully diverse professional journey, huge amounts of learnings, huge amounts of environment, sectors people, et cetera, et cetera. What is the next learning for you? What does growth look like for you from this point?
Andrea: Oh, God, I’m not even sure I know at the moment. I think the last 12 months have taught me a hell of a lot more resilience. I think that the last 12 months have actually made me realise that I’m not feeling quite as infallible as I thought I was. So probably for me, it’s about, you know, how do we now, the growth for me is now what’s next?
How do I support a community of people that are going through a lot of change, but it’s about, looking at what’s next in Talent Acquisition? The fact that we’re moving more to talent, that we have to join up a lot more with HR and that there is sort of almost a hybrid role developing around talent operations, HR operations, and how do we set people up for that?
I’m working with someone in the HR community to build a six months training program. That is going to take that as a focus and almost have a transformation journey piece where we can work with people. So, for me, it’s about now understanding how to formalise a bit more of that education, rather than just running events, where we give lots of information.
We have great chats, and we have a hell of a lot of wine at the end of it. Now it’s about how do we formalise some of that training and potentially how do we sort of accredit, some of it as well and I have none of that experience, so it’s going out to look for those people that are prepared to help and work with me to achieve that.
Neil: Wonderful, wonderful. The Talent Table team asked me a question a few weeks ago that I found a really interesting and reflective question and it was around the influences on my career and to be honest, I remember going into it thinking, “Oh, just I’ll create some content. I’ll send it back and it’ll be like”… it made me, it was a really interesting exercise and I want to ask you the same question because it was something that made me sort of take stock of my life impact. Not just the sort of high-level lacking substance, “Yeah, my manager, my this”, no, but really who has impacted my life?
I found it a really interesting exercise. So, the question to you, if you were to think on the top three influences in your career?
Andrea: Yes. So, the first person would be, Cheryl Pople, big shout out to her. She was my manager when I worked for Phillips Fox, the law firm. She was the one that took me out of BHP, Billiton, and went, let me teach you to be a proper HR person in, you know, a brilliantly, challenging environment. We want to move HR from being a revolving door of secretaries, crying in an office to actually being an advisory function.
She was the one that would say, “Brilliant personality, love your personality, love how loud you are, but hey, let’s tone it down a bit and add some professionalism in there”. So, she was probably life-changing in terms of turning me into a more of a professional.
The other person would be, Jenny O’Brien and we still laugh to this day. My first HR admin role was working with her. Then I had a marvellous ability to put an extra zero on to everyone’s pay. I have no attention to detail, and I drove her insane and we are best friends and sisters today. But that ability to have the brilliant sense of humour be professional and that stunning attention to detail, means that I go out now and employ people who can do that for me and the third person that would have influenced my career. Well, it’s actually two of them and I’m working with them right now and they probably think I’m brown-nosing a bit because they are sitting behind me.
Neil: Cause they’re sitting right behind you, yeah?
Andrea: They’re sitting right behind me, but a big shout out to, Renae Peattie and Michelle Edwards. Two people that have joined me on this crazy journey who are influencing me every day, too.
Just not be the fun person that runs events, but also to sort of put a bit more business, ‘Ompf’ behind it as well. We’re not making a hell of a lot of money at the moment, ‘cause I’m just trying to build things, but actually they’re the ones that are sort of calling me out and saying, “You need to think a bit differently” or “You need to make some decisions here”. Where at the moment here I’m just letting it all slide by.
But you know, two people that also know nothing about Talent Acquisition, Michelle was a nurse. Renee is a Marketing Manager and can speak the language now and can hold their own in a conversation and everyday working with them is a delight, long may it continue.
Neil: The different perspectives would challenge your thinking, I’m sure.
Andrea: Oh, I love a different perspective. I’m all about differences.